Harry Potter and Boots of Beer

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Lavenham, Suffolk, bills itself as England’s best preserved medieval town. As a bit of a history buff it is a place DonQui has wanted to visit for some time. Even though it is not far from his home paddock on the Suffolk coast, he has not managed it until now.

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In the heart of Suffolk, not too far from Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham is not easy to find. There are no main roads and no rail lines. To get there DonQui has to wind his way along narrow country lanes with only just enough room for two cars coming in opposite directions to squeeze past each other. Perhaps this is why the place is so well preserved.

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If you like old timber-framed houses this is the place for you. Many of the wonky buildings have been standing since the 14th century. Walking around the compact streets DonQui feels as if he has stepped back in time — parked cars notwithstanding.

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Fans of Harry Potter may well recognise the De Vere house as Harry’s birthplace from the film The Deathly Hallows.

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Several other films have also used the backdrop of Lavenham’s medieval streets as a backdrop.

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Many of the houses have pink plaster. The colour is still known today as ’Suffolk pink’. Originally this colour was obtained by mixing pigs’ blood with the plaster. DonQui assumes that the modern versions are more likely made by chemical combinations to match the natural original.

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Most of the buildings can only be admired from the outside but the Guildhall can be visited. It has been restored inside along with some excellent exhibits of its origins in the Flanders wool trade.

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Later it became a house of correction where the ‘idle and disorderly’ (poor and homeless) were incarcerated in the misguided idea that hard work and cruel conditions would make them more productive members of society.

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These reproductions of original notices give DonQui an idea of the fate of those unfortunates. One woman was incarcerated for having brought two children with smallpox into the town.

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There is also a bit of relatively modern history to the place. RAF Lavenham was an active airfield during the second world war and was home to the USAAF’ s 487th Bombardment Group which flew 185 missions between May 1944 and April 1945 with the loss of 233 lives. The Airmen’s Bar in the Swan Hotel is dedicated to their memory.

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Original graffiti from British and American pilots adorns the walls along with modern additions from returning veterans and their offspring.

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DonQui particularly likes the ‘boot record’ from 1940 which lists the times it took various British servicemen to drink a ‘boot’ of beer. Ironically this is a German tradition in which a couple of litres of beer are drunk in one go from a glass in the shape of a boot. DonQui did this in his younger days when he was living in Germany. The trick is to keep the toe of the boot pointing down otherwise an air-bubble will cause the drinker to be drenched, much to the amusement of the on-lookers.

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DonQui takes his hat off to W.H. Culling of the RAF who drank the boot in an incredible 59 seconds on 5 July 1940 only to do it again eight days later in 40 seconds!

Lavenham has plenty of excellent watering holes. These include:

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The Great House. This is where DonQui stayed and he reviewed it fully in his previous post. As boutique hotel with only 5 rooms it must be reserved well in advance. If you cannot get a room there, DonQui recommends treating yourself to at least one meal in the wonderful French restaurant.

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The Swan. Home of the atmospheric Airmen’s Bar, the Swan also has rooms and two eating possibilities.

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The restaurant is excellent, offering modern British cuisine of nearly the same quality as The Great House although it does not have quite the same ambiance. Duchess proclaims her goat’s cheese pannacotta with beetroot granita as one of the most interesting dishes she has ever tasted.

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The Swan’s Brasserie is more casual but with a bunch of tables and plastic chairs set up in a hallway, DonQui is not tempted.

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Attached to the Swan is an excellent Spa with a full range of treatments and a hot tub.

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Number 10 gets good reviews on TripAdvisor. The old timbered building and interesting menu posted outside tempts DonQui. When he goes inside to potentially make a reservation his ears are assaulted with the sounds of manufactured pop music of the worst kind. When he asks if this sort of stuff is played through dinner he is informed that it is. With a gentle snort he turns on his hooves and looks elsewhere.

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The Lavenham Greyhound is a Greene King pub. DonQui goes in for an afternoon drink and enjoys it. He cannot vouch for the food but the menu has fairly typical good pub food options. The bowls of soup he sees being brought to another table look good.

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The Guildhall  has a very good café offering tea, coffee and baked goods. Their scones are baked on the premises and DonQui tucks into one along with clotted cream and a blackcurrant jam while Duchess takes hers with raspberry jam. The scones are truly excellent. It is well worth a stop.

A bit of France in Suffolk

In the heart of rural Suffolk lies Lavenham — England’s best preserved medieval town. In the heart of Lavenham is an unexpected little corner of France.

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Over thirty years ago, the 14th century ‘Great House’ on Lavenham’s Market Place was bought by Régis and Martine Crépy. They converted it into a fabulous 5-room boutique hotel with a gourmet French restaurant.

DonQui is staying at The Great House for a couple of days while he explores Lavenham. It is as quintessentially French as the rest Lavenham is medieval English. The owners, staff, chef, and ambiance are all French. It seems to DonQui as if he has crossed the channel as soon as he steps over the threshold. For the francophile DonQui this is all very good news, especially the prospect of a French style dinner in owner-chef Régis Crépy’s award winning restaurant. He is not disappointed.

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He and Duchess opt for the 3 course set menu which at £36 is great value for top end cuisine from a renown chef who is often on the premises.

Spying the fantastic looking cheese board on the way in he decides to add a cheese course before desert which he and duchess will share. With 19 AOC cheeses it is reminiscent of the cheese board he sampled recently at Domaine de Barive.

 

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The food more than lives up to expectations. It is modern French cuisine using mostly local ingredients although the cheese is imported from France and the scallops come from the Isle of Man. The dishes are perfectly cooked, very well balanced, and not overly fussy. There are also a very good selection of wines by the glass. DonQui generally prefers this with a multi course meal as it allows him to sample different wines with different dishes.

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Highlights include the queen scallops with an avocado-lemon mousse and seaweed butter, which DonQui has as his starter. The accompanying mousse gives just the right amount of citrus taste to set off the delicate small scallops.

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Duchess pronounces her main of skate wing with capers and tomatoes as ‘astounding.’ Skate is not a fish DonQui has been particularly keen on in the past. When he has a taste of this one he is most impressed. The fish takes the taste of the capers and tomatoes beautifully and DonQui decides he will try cooking skate wing himself at some time in the future.

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The meat dishes are just as good as the fish. DonQui’s only mild criticism is that the additional portions of vegetables and potato do not match the standard of the main dishes. They were also quite unnecessary.

IMG_0529The cheese selection is a delight, all perfectly ripe and served at room temperature. DonQui likes having cheese before a sweet to finish off his wine. Unfortunately in many English restaurants a cheese course is brought straight from the fridge and is therefore often tasteless.

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The deserts are just as good as the previous courses.

The hotel rooms are spacious and comfortable. The modern furnishings and conveniences tastefully fitting in to their ancient surroundings. One of the rooms has a Jacobean four poster bed which DonQui and Duchess decide to try out on a future visit.

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Breakfast is a typical French-style buffet. The smell of the croissants and bread being baked on-site are a perfect alarm clock for DonQui.

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Cooked options from poached eggs on toast to a ‘full English’ are also available.

DonQui thoroughly enjoyed his stay at The Great House. It is not inexpensive but given the very high quality it is value for money. He will definitely come again. Lavenham itself is also well worth a visit and DonQui will no doubt have more to say about the place before too long.

Rumour has it that Régis Crépy is looking to sell up in order to open a new restaurant in London with his son. If you want to experience this wonderful French oasis in the heart of Suffolk you may wish to go sooner rather than later.

Bags of Beans

Those of you who have been following DonQui’s adventures will know that he has been away from the home paddock quite a bit over the past few months. Home again now, he trots up to the allotment to see how things are doing. One of the problems with going away in the Spring or Summer months is that when he comes back he often finds the allotment overgrown with weeds and that he has missed some of his favourite produce.

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Not so this year. He spaced his trips away to leave short weeding and harvesting gaps in between. He got the best of the soft fruits earlier in the summer.

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Now that the strawberries and raspberries are over but the blackberries and blueberries are just starting to come into their own.

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Beans are some of DonQui’s favourite vegetables and they do consistently well on his little plot. Earlier in the year he had some trouble with aphids on the broad beans. A tip from a veteran gardener helped DonQui to deal with them. Snip off the tips of the bean stalks and spray the little blighters with a highly diluted washing up liquid. This sorted them out and they never returned.

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After a very good harvest the broad beans are now finished and the dwarf French beans are producing a bumper crop. DonQui planted several varieties and he is glad that he did as it spreads out the production. Some of the later ones are not quite ready yet while others are more than ready for harvest.

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DonQui likes his beans young and thin. So he does not like to delay harvesting them. This means, inevitably he ends up with far more than he can eat in one go. Fortunately beans freeze very well so this is what DonQui does, getting on with the job while the beans are freshly picked.

First he sorts them into two-portion piles of roughly equally thick beans.

Then he blanches them in boiling water. Just 45-60 seconds for the thin ones and around 2 mins for the thicker ones.

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Next, he drains them and plunges them into cold water. Iced water would be even better but DonQui does not have any ice to hand. This stops them from continuing cooking.

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He lays the drained beans on paper towels to dry, then puts them into freezer bags and into the freezer.

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They will be good right through the winter and into next Spring. When cooking the frozen beans he simply thaws them out then swishes them around with butter in a pan. This seems to be all they need and they are quite delicious.

beans lastHaving dealt with one huge pile of beans he goes back up to the allotment a few days later and this  is what he comes back with. The runner beans are starting to produce as are the purple French beans. The purple beans turn green when cooked and taste no different from the green ones.

Food and Farming

So… DonQui is in a bit of an agricultural mood at the moment. Having whipped his allotment into shape he is in need of a few more things to plant. He is thinking of beans – they always seem to do well and the surplus can be easily frozen. A few more herbs might be in order too. He already has thyme, oregano, tarragon, parsley, coriander and chives but some basil would be nice and Duchess has her heart set on some mint. The latter is a problem since mint runs roots all over the place and could soon take over everything. Never mind, he will deal with that in due course. In the meantime he needs to decide where to go to pick up some more plants.

What’s this?

Darsham Nursuries

According to The Guardian newspaper the Darsham Nurseries,  just down the road, is on the list of the 100 best places to eat in England.

A nursery café one of the best places to eat in England? Normally all DonQui might expect in such a place is a stale piece of cake and some instant coffee – not for him!

Yet this information comes from a most trusted source so he decides to give it a try. After all he does need to buy some plants.

And what a delightful surprise it is!

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Duchess is delighted with her ‘English Garden’ cocktail. Such things are not to DonQui’s taste but he can appreciate the fresh minty aroma while he sips on a good glass of Beaujolais.

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The menu offers a tapas-style selection of modern European sharing plates in larger than expected portions.

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DonQui particularly enjoys the seasonal grilled local asparagus with romesco and almonds. Romesco is a Catalan pepper based sauce from Tarragona and although DonQui did not sample this when he was in Tarragona he finds it quite delicious. The locally sourced  Blythburgh pork chop with apricots was simply divine although DonQui struggles to see it as a ‘small dish.’

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Duchess’ favorite was the ‘garden greens’ (Swiss chard) with burnt lemon and goat’s cheese curd. It was slightly better presented that the picture above indicates but by the time DonQui got around to taking it Duchess had already tucked in!

One side dish DonQui had to order was radishes with butter and salt – a very simple French classic. As a very young colt DonQui remembers his grandfather raving about radis au beurre. He had fought at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War and radis au beurre was something he had acquired a taste for in the cafés behind the lines when he was away from the action. He even insisted that the French word for butter was aubeurre and no amount of DonQui’s primary school knowledge could convince him that the ‘au’ was not an integral part of the word. “I was in France and I know,” was his emphatic reply and that was that.

The meal was utterly delicious, finished off with a heavenly concoction of creamy cheese over fine phyllo pastry with honey and nuts. It was billed as a ‘cheese cake’ but the name did not do it justice. DonQui is not a great fan of traditional cheese cake and this was anything but.

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And yes DonQui did pick up some mint which is now awaiting re-planting. The nursery did not have any beans but in light of the most delicious lunch he really does not mind.

 

Fish and Chips

So what have immigrants ever done for us in the UK?

Apart from providing competent plumbers and increasing the number of working youngsters to pay for baby boomers’ pensions — they have hugely improved the quality and variety of the food we now regularly enjoy.

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We have Jewish refugees to thank for fish and chips while Britain’s other national dish — chicken tikka masala (photo above) — was invented by Bangladeshi immigrants.

Now DonQui has a rather problematic relationship with fish and chips. Every once in a while he gets a craving. Then he trots down to the chippy (fish & chip shop for non-Brits) with great expectations which invariably end in disappointment. Really good fish and chips need a light, crispy batter and the chips should be nicely browned on the outside while remaining soft in the middle. All too often the batter is thick and greasy while the chips are pale and limp.

Not good.

Living by a seaside resort town — Southwold in Suffolk — one would think that it would be fairly easy for DonQui to find decent fish and chips.

Not so

The fish is fresh, to be sure, and generally speaking the batter is fine. His main problem is with the flaccid, pale, sorry excuses for chips — caused by cooking at too low a temperature without double frying.

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The news that a new chippy is opening in Southwold fills DonQui with some hope. After months of renovations, and missing the high summer season, the Little Fish and Chip Shop has just opened. Selling fresh fish out front and frying around the back, it looks very promising.

fish and chips 1DonQui decides to give it a go, ordering haddock with a small portion of chips. Plaice is DonQui’s favourite fish but it is too thin and delicate for deep frying in batter. It really has to be either cod or haddock. While haddock tends to be preferred up north and cod down south, DonQui has to agree with his northern cousins on this point.

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Cooked to order, first appearances are encouraging. The chips actually have colour and the batter looks crisp and dry. The lemon wedge and parsley on top are a nice touch. Served in a box it makes it easy for DonQui to take home without wrapping. Wrapping, of course, will keep it warm longer but has the nasty side-effect of the trapped steam from the hot food turning everything soft and soggy. Therefore, as he does not have far to go, DonQui leaves the lid on the box ajar to let the steam escape, puts it in his wagon and canters off home.

Although he only ordered a small portion of chips, it seems that there is more than enough for two people, let alone one donkey. Usually when he orders fish and chips for two he asks for one portion of chips for two pieces of fish. But as Duchess is away he puts half of the portion on his plate and although he has a few more later on he cannot not finish them all.

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Sprinkling salt on the chips and dousing everything with malt vinegar, DonQui tucks in.

It is good, perhaps very good. Not the best fish and chips he has ever eaten but it definitely fulfils his main criteria. Not greasy at all, the chips are nice and crisp on the outside remaining lovely and soft in the middle. The fish is fresh, delicate and flaky while the batter is light enough for DonQui to happily eat it all rather than pulling it off and leaving it to one side as he often does with sub-standard fish and chips.

Done well, fish and chips, is a truly wonderful British food staple which people in other countries often do not understand. When he lived in Germany, DonQui’s German friends could not get their heads around the combination, thinking that fried fish needed to be served with boiled potatoes not chips. Yet they were perfectly content with chips as an accompaniment to fried, breaded schnitzel. As for putting vinegar on it… the very thought made them cringe in horror. But just as the acidity of lemon enhances a schnitzel, or indeed fish, so does the vinegar — cutting through and balancing the oil in which it has been fried. It has to be proper malt vinegar, mind you, nothing else works.

The sad thing is that it is not that easy to find really good fish and chips, even in Britain.

England’s Atlantis

DonQui is relieved to arrive back in England to crisp, sunny, autumn weather. Although it certainly feels cold after Tanzania’s mid 30° temperatures, at least it is not grey and rainy.
It being that day of the week, DonQui decides to partake in the English ritual of a walk in the country followed by a Sunday roast at a suitable pub.

One of his favourite places to do this is Dunwich.

Dunwich beachNow not many people have heard of Dunwich and with good reason… Like Atlantis, most of it lies under the sea.

Yet back in medieval times Dunwich was one of England’s most important towns. It was in the top ten listed in the Doomsday Book of 1086, growing in size and prosperity over the next 300 years. Trade with Flanders and the royal shipyards made Dunwich the most important port on the East coast, second only to London. It was here that King Edward III’s fleet was built for the invasion of France in the Hundred Years War.

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However, the sand cliffs on which Dunwich is built are highly vulnerable to erosion. A great storm in 1347 swept away 400 houses as the cliffs crumbled and fell into the sea. In the years that followed the once great port silted up and the Blyth River changed its course. By the beginning of the 17th century Dunwich had lost 3/4 of its original size and the erosion continues still.

Dunwich greyfriarsToday all that remains of the once great medieval city are the ruins of the Greyfriars monastery and St James’ chapel which once administered to a leper colony. Both of these buildings were inland from the original city walls. All that was once inside the walls is now under the sea.

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The more than 5000 inhabitants of medieval times has shrunk to a modern population of less than 200. A rather good little museum tells the story

Dunwich Ship

Tucked in amongst the cottages of modern Dunwich is the Ship Inn — one of DonQui’s favourite pubs in the area. After a circular walk over the cliffs, through Greyfriars’ Wood and around the monastery DonQui is ready for a pint and some roast beast with all the trimmings.

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The Ship is a free house serving an ever changing selection of local beers and ciders. This is a rarity in these parts where most pubs are tied to Southwold’s Adnams’ brewery. Now in the past there was no love lost between Dunwich and Southwold so it is perhaps not surprising to find the Ship maintaining its independence. Although DonQui is a great fan of Adnams’ beers he finds it refreshing to have a wider choice every once in a while.

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He samples the Jenny Morgan, and finds it quite refreshing with a light hoppy taste. Brewed by Green Jack of Lowestoft it is apparently named after a girl in an old mariners’ song who waits at home for her sweetheart who is out at sea.

Dunwich menu

Unlike many pubs on Sunday, The Ship offers other options in addition to the traditional Sunday Roast. However it is roast than DonQui wants, choosing the beef while Duchess goes for the pork. They also decide to share the watermelon, feta, pumpkin seed and basil salad as a starter. It simply sounded too interesting to pass up and DonQui was glad he didn’t — it was utterly delicious.

The Ship always does an excellent roast and this time was no exception. Both were very good but DonQui thought that the pork possible had the edge on the beef. Unfortunately he tucked into the food right away rather than taking photographs.

Dunwich knickerbocker

However he did remember to capture the image of the rather spectacular knickerbocker glory which served as an excellent shared desert.

The Sail Loft Southwold

Duchess has a surprise for DonQui. It involves food and drink as she knows what he likes. It also appears to be something new, something DonQui has not yet tried.

Now DonQui is firmly of the option that the food in Suffolk is amongst the best to be had in England. Fresh and locally sourced, it may not have the international variety one can find in London but the quality and value for money are simply outstanding.

Being the sort of animal who constantly seeks out all the best pastures, DonQui had assumed that he had sampled all there was to be had close to his home paddock. Imagine his surprise, therefore,when Duchess leads him to a new place just beyond the sand dunes of the Southwold beach.

Sail Loft Southwold

Sail Loft in Southwold opened a few months ago, after renovating an old Italian restaurant that had been closed for years. DonQui’s initial impression is very positive.

Yes it had an inevitable nautical look but it was done in a very tasteful way without any fishing nets, faux pirate junk, nor any other kind of tourist tat. Instead there was lots of distressed, reclaimed wood which gave a modern and comfortably casual up-market atmosphere.

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DonQui’s mane stood up in delight when he saw the rather good wines and the seasonal specials on offer.

Sail Loft menu

Despite the nautical name this was not the sort of place for sea-side holiday fish and chips!

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A plate of crispy salt and pepper beef with carrot, radish and coriander serves as a shared starter. It is out of the ordinary and very tasty indeed. More than enough for two to share, it serves admirably to keep the wolf away while waiting for the main course and sipping on a most excellent Argentinian Malbec. The wine is a bit on the expensive side for Suffolk (although it would be a bargain in London) and DonQui appreciates the option of a glass, a carafe or a bottle.

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The main courses are roast partridge with root vegetables and a blueberry sauce, for DonQui; slow cooked Blythburgh pork belly with red cabbage, roast potatoes and cider gravy for Duchess. Both are exquisite. Autumn is game season and DonQui can rarely resist a game option when it is on the menu. Some game birds can, however, be a bit on the tough side. This one however is succulent and perfectly cooked. The sweetness of the blueberries in the sauce is a perfect counter-point to the full flavour of the game bird.

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Blythburgh pork, from just across the river from Southwold is becoming increasingly sought after and DonQui has seen it on menus in several London restaurants. How much better to have it close to home just a few miles from where the pigs are reared? It is ’melt in the mouth’ tender and full of delicious taste. The red cabbage, cooked with apple, is a perfect compliment. DonQui’s only criticism is that by serving the pork belly on top of the red cabbage the lovely cider gravy became lost in the cabbage. The latter does not need it, while the pork is a little on the dry side without. This is fixed when the chef provides a jug of extra gravy on request.

Desert is a shared ‘autumn fruit mess’ — a seasonal variant on Eton Mess (non Brits may have to look this up). Figs, apples and blackberries are the fruit and they worked brilliantly together with the cream and broken up meringue. DonQui tucks into it with such delight that he completely forgot about taking photos!

DonQui will most definitely be going back!